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29 Jul 2013

Chalkboards and Cheeseboards – Resisting the Workplace’s Colonisation of the Schoolroom

By Mike Douse, freelance education advisor.


Many contributors to the post-MDG debate appear to take it as a glorious given that education is predominantly about economic growth and poverty alleviation and that it should be supported, planned and evaluated from that perspective. Just as a rich cultural heritage should not be perceived merely as a source of tourism revenues, nor corruption-free governance welcomed chiefly for its stimulation of corporate expansion, so also is education valid as an end in itself – and this is to be shouted loudly from the rooftops, pronounced unashamedly at conferences and incorporated efficaciously into policies, budgets, programmes, plans and classroom practices.


Accordingly, I stress the distinction between ‘education’ (which should, I contend, have nothing to do with livelihoods or productivity or economic growth) and ‘training’ (which certainly must have). Once we apply analyses based upon the assumption that helping an infant to walk, or enabling a child to read, or aiding an adolescent to enjoy cricket, or inspiring an adult to participate in classical drama, or enthusing an ancient pensioner to become an ICT whizz-kid is amenable (let alone limited) to economic number-crunching, then we’re trading in our human values for a debased conception of ‘value for money’.


All too frequently, non-educators pontificating upon education have used crude estimates of incremental remuneration along the lines of ‘X additional years of primary schooling bring about Y additional duly discounted lifetime earnings’. [One especially droll practice is to use ‘number of years of full-time schooling’ as a surrogate for ‘level of education achieved’. This is akin to estimating a person’s health status based upon ‘time spent in hospital’.] We have for far too long been gravely hoodwinked by fundamentalist ‘rate of returners’.


Assuredly there is much to be gained by comparing the costs of training with the benefits of better-skilled and more motivated workers. The objective is reasonably clear, the desired outcome more or less measurable, and the economic and financial benefits and monetary costs may – with care – be compared, all to the enlightenment of donors and the reassurance of electorates.


But education isn’t like that. Engendering a love of learning and underwriting enthusiasms and generally having fun in understanding and responding to our world is self-evidently good in a moral sense but is diminished when perceived as a mere economic good. Bringing the marketplace into education and the workplace into the schoolroom devalues the invaluable, transforming a wonderful universal right into a mundane tradable commodity. Perhaps subconsciously the scribes of Busan (see Soyeun Kim’s NEWSBite of August 2012) recognised the underlying contradiction in attempting Value for Money analyses where the outcome facilitated (‘education’) is beyond valuation.


I appreciated Robert Palmer’s March 2013 NEWSBite What Room for Education (and Training)? I found it particularly interesting and encouraging that, of the 27 governments whose responses to the UN’s questionnaire related to the development of Sustainable Development Goals included ‘education’, only 7 of the responding Member States mentioned any of ‘vocational’ or ‘training’ or ‘skills development’. Unlike many authors, including those writing on post-MDG and related issues, it seems that those who put together their countries’ responses tend not to confuse these two very distinct entities. It is us well-intentioned Westerners who muddle up education with employment preparation, to the detriment of both.


I also appreciated the May 2013 NEWSbite by Desmond Bermingham of Save the Children. I have known and worked in relation to many excellent interventions run by that INGO across the decades and continents (most recently in Somalia and Darfur). Their approaches tend to embody a particular realisation that just about every contributor to the post-MDG debate ignores, namely that the needs of young people extend to an education that is safe and participative and convivial. That is free of bullying and discrimination and sexual exploitation. That is open and democratic and active and child-centred and creative. That is enjoyed by teachers and learners. That is – as I like to put it – fun. And I suggest that this isn’t a side issue, still less my saying merely that if children enjoy schooling they are more likely to learn. At the very heart of what should be the post-2015 educational emphases, let ‘Children are Loving Learning’ be the end in itself. How else may the Children be Saved?


Kenneth King’s NEWSbite of June 2013 thanks goodness that “Education has Made it to the Finishing Line in the Global Post-2015 High Level Panel Olympics”. However, each of the dozen identified Goals may reasonably be regarded as contributing to a Supergoal of universal human happiness and fulfilment – and I still hold out hope for EFA incorporating this notion of education being in itself a pleasurable end in its next generation of objectives. Moreover, unlike the MDGs, this putative partnership is for all of us, not just the ‘developing world’. Yet the issuance of this United Nations document has hardly grabbed the headlines. If few beyond those in or studying the aid business know about this supposedly seminal publication, how can it possibly achieve its lofty aspirations? 0.1 per cent of the world are getting excited about something that the remaining 99.99 per cent have yet to hear about. Not entirely the best basis for a revolution.


To sum up, if education is defined in pecuniary terms and aimed at economic goals it will inevitably be regarded as a function of the market and, consequently, the world of work will come to colonise the space of the school. Only when it is recognised that education (as opposed to training) is about self-realisation (as opposed to acquiring marketable skills and the getting of certificates), will the profiteers be chased from the temples of learning and the laughter of children come to drown out the clacking of the cash registers. I live in hope.


These reflections have been drawn by Mike Douse from his responses to some earlier NORRAG NEWSbites. Email:

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